In November 2008, The Pulitzer Center partnered with Helium to produce its fifth round of the Global Issues/Citizen Voices Writing contest, challenging contestents to write on the most pressing international issues of the day. Contestents chose from multiple writing prompts related to international issues and Pulitzer Center reporting projects to sculp their winning essays. Read the winning essays below.
Has the US media presented a fair and accurate portrayal of the Georgia/Russia conflict?
Winning essay by Brian Bolin
The headlines blazed - "Russia invades Georgia" (Washington Post, August 12, 2008) or words to that effect suggesting that Russia was flexing its military might and reclaiming its place as a world super-power. The sub-text in the US media was that we were on the brink of a new Cold War.
Was this fair and accurate reporting?
No. It failed to convey the complex geo-political make-up of this part of the world. Georgia has been a buffer zone between Asian and European interests for centuries and variously invaded and occupied by each. In the late 18th century, Georgia signed the Treaty of Georgievsk and fell under Russian protection, cemented when Russian troops defeated the Persian army near Zagam in 1805. Over the succeeding decades, Georgia managed to do a bit of colonial expansion with a bit of help from Russia, assimilating parts of what are now known as Turkey and Iran as large parts of its territory, meaning that the country was a melting pot of different cultures and religions.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia took advantage of the shift in power to declare its independence from Russia. This show of defiance was short-lived, with the Red Army invading four years later and then formally falling under Soviet rule in 1924, with the violent suppression of Georgian separatists in the August Uprising. Despite one of their own in Josef Stalin rising to the highest ranks of Soviet power, the Georgia-Soviet relationship was an uneasy one. Dissident groups commenced moves for Georgian independence from the 1960s and were brutally suppressed.
Georgia held the first multi-party polls in the USSR in 1990 and declared independence shortly before the fall of the Iron Curtain the following year. Instead of that act kick-starting a period of peace for the fledgling country, all it did was commence an internal power struggle characterised by a coup and inter-ethnic violence and bloody disputes, culminating in the quasi-independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, with more than a little help from neighbouring Russia. These two states were recognised as independent nations by both Russia and Nicaragua, but not by the rest of the world. It should also be noted that South Ossetia is ethnically similar to neighbouring North Ossetia, which is part of Russia, and hoped to eventually be part of a single Ossetian territory. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia consider themselves to have more in common with Russia than Georgia and, given their choice of masters, leaned very much towards Russia.
The recent conflict was sparked by the Georgian military's attempt to bring these breakaway regions into line. On 7th August this year, Georgian troops invaded South Ossetia, an area protected by Russian peace-keeping troops and regarded by Russia as a sovereign territory. Russia doesn't take too kindly to military action and reacted as would be expected, swiftly and with overwhelming force. The South Ossetians with some justification felt that this was a threat to their perceived sovereignty and requested military assistance from Russia. Less than a week later, with Russian air-strikes wreaking significant damage to Georgian infrastructure and military capacity, not to mention the uncertain but sizable casualties on both sides, Russian President Medvedev ordered a halt to hostilities.
At the end of the day, the situation regarding South Ossetia and Ankhazia was largely returned to what it was pre-conflict. The only difference seems to be that Georgia's economic progress in Europe was given a severe set-back and Georgian peace-keeping troops were evicted from both regions. Russia has re-stated its view of the two regions as independent states and its troops are there at the invitation of both. An added bonus for Russia is that this serves as a warning to other former satellite states with any similar ideas, potentially the pro-western Ukraine and Azerbaijan.
The media portrayal of the Russian action as an unprovoked attack on sovereign Georgia is in my view a sensationalist view ignoring the history of the region. While the Russian response was arguably excessive, Georgia was far from the innocent party portrayed by the media. President Saakashvili tried a bit of political sleight of hand, gambling on his country's pro-American stance to minimise repercussions. If Saakashvili had looked back to 1921-24, the lesson was there to be learned - anyone who treats Russia with contempt does so at their own peril.
What responsibility does the US bear for helping to solve the Iraqi refugee crisis?
Winning essay by Shaheen Darr
Millions of people protesting around the globe did not stop the invasion of Iraq by US and UK forces on the 20th of March 2003. The reason for this invasion was the Weapons of Mass Destructions (WMDs) that Sadam Hussein was allegedly hoarding in Iraq. While these were never found, Sadam's reign of terror was finally brought to an end. The errors of judgement made by Tony Blair and President George Bush in invading Iraq will meanwhile remain topics of debates and discussions in history books for times to come. The world peace that was to be the result of the invasion is still very illusory but one thing that is very real and a direct result of the invasion is the effect it has had on the Iraqi people themselves.
The invasion has not only taken lives of American soldiers who found themselves in Iraq fighting a "war on terror" but thousands of Iraqi citizens who are still dying to this day. In the safety of Western countries where violence and unrest seem alien we have become immune to daily news bulletins of Iraqis dying in street violence or in suicide bombs. We do not realise the true extent of how many Iraqis have been affected since the invasion started. The invasion provided the Sunnis and Shiites sects with adequate fuel to ignite the flame of sectarian violence which killed many and destroyed historic parts and monuments in the country.
According to statistics provided by UNCHR (United Nations Commissioner of Refugees) and Amnesty International, 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq since the invasion. There has been no Iraqi governmental assistance given to compensate or resettle these people in any way. In addition nearly 2 million more Iraqis have been displaced into neighbouring countries like Syria, Jordan and Lebanon with Syria taking the brunt of this influx. Subsequently, there is enormous pressure on housing, food and schools of these host countries where these resources are already in short supply and feelings of resentment are rising. The refugees, some of them skilled, trained professionals have no decent employment and others have resorted to child labour and prostitution to cope. The situation is deteriorating every day unless something is done to help these people get back into some normality of life.
It is imperative for the Iraqi government to assist its displaced population and to make the Western powers aware of the extent of the problem. The displaced Iraqis want to resettle in Western countries because of threats andlack of security they face in their own country. In June 2007 the "Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act" brought home the fact of the small number of refugees that have been allowed to settle in the US since 2006.
Since then according to reports by Amnesty International only 1% of the Iraqi refugees have been allowed to settle in Western countries in 2007. A statement was made by US Senators Edward Kennedy and Gordon Smith in that year about helping in the resettlement of Iraqi refugees especially those whose lives were in danger in Iraq. Funds to the value of $18million and aid would be given to assist the UNCHR in its efforts in controlling the situation. It is a matter of waiting to see if this promise is kept to the Iraqi refugees or if it will be forgotten especially now with the US facing its biggest economic crisis in decades.
Aid agencies are finding it harder to give continued support to sustain the basic needs of this refugee problem. According to UNHCR, lack of sufficient funding means that it will be impossible for it to continue providing basic facilities to the refugees this year. Until adequate resources and funds are made available even urgent medical supplies will not be available to those who need them.
When we look back at the colonial history of Western powers like Britain steps were always taken to ensure the well being of the citizens of the colonised countries they invaded and ruled. The US too has a responsibility to do the same in the name of humanitarianism.
The refugee problem will not just vanish away itself but has to be a priority for the US. It is because of US actions that the Iraqi people are suffering and do not have a place to call their own. The problem will get worse if it is ignored and we will all have a hand to play in driving the final nail in Iraq's coffin.
Source: http://www.humanrightsfirst.or g/asylum/asylum_13_iraqi_refug ees.asp
What does media freedom mean in a place like Sri Lanka that is determined to stamp out a long-standing insurrection?
Winning essay by Sarah Harrison
People in Sri Lanka are scared. A man I interviewed for this article did not want to be quoted, named or referred to.
And they are confused. I am too reading the online Sri Lankan newspapers (and I hear they are exactly the same on the street); not one paper tells the same story, or gives the same weight to each scoop.
Many of the papers and radio stations are state owned and widely known to be full of propaganda. Local journalists are disappearing all the time. Everyone is suspicious of everyone.
The government's official news website is riddled with press releases stating the 'true' version of international reports on Sri Lanka, and demands for apologies and retractions from the world's press.
The media suppression is leaving the people of Sri Lanka misinformed, trapped and without a voice.
Media freedom is considered a human right in a democracy. Many countries in the world pride themselves on it. Its roots go as far back as 1789 when 'The Declaration of the Rights of Man' carved the first steps to ensure freedom of speech for the people. Freedom of press now plays a fundamental role in a democratic society 'sustaining and monitoring,  as well as in contributing to greater accountability, good government, and economic development'[i].
The importance of media freedom can be seen in the wake of the Tsunami. Many small aid organisations sprang up around the country and were able, through free media, to gain help, funds and information. Many in London
were able to locate loved ones via the BBC.
But in situations of war, these same democratic countries will suppress information from the media to ensure secrecy against the enemy and protection of the people. The minority Tamils in Sri Lanka were unfairly represented in government at independence in 1948. Unrest developed into civil war in 1983 that has been going on-and-off since then, predominantly against the Liberation Tigers of
Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, who are now claiming independence in the North and East. The LTTE are well known for terrorist attacks and 'invented' the suicide bomber. The Sri Lankan government is fighting back with similar tactics. The war is slowly destroying the country.
Even in times of peace, and with a so called free press many governments are able to warp the information the public receives. Through state owned newspapers, television channels and radio stations, governments are able to ensure that 'the picture of the world that's presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality. The truth of the matter is buried under edifice after edifice of lies.'[ii] Thereby ensuring that the public doesn't hear of the latest sex scandal, monetary bribe, or army bombing.
In Sri Lanka the media is suppressed and propaganda is rife. Despite the international public's horror at the terrorist LTTE, they are just mirrored by the Sri Lankan government. They are not suppressing the media to protect their citizens but to cover up their own actions. Instead of using the world's free press to exercise their own right to inform and ask for help, they are killing their own journalists who are trying to do just that.
The Free Media Movement (FMM) was established in 1991 as a collective response from journalists to the proposed Media Commission to Sri Lanka. Although the Commission was not formed the government continues to unofficially suppress and control the media. As well as owning much of the media the government is accused of killing independent journalists that speak out against it. When Keith Noyahr, a senior local journalist was abducted and assaulted, the FMM said 'there is no other reason for this  than his independent writing and analysis', adding that 'Noyahr had been critical of high-ranking military officers and the government's approach'[iii]. A small press release on The Official Government News Portal of Sri Lanka said they were investigating.
Media suppression and propaganda are making the people of the country confused and deceived. This leaves them scared and unable to act, allowing the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to continue their prolonged war. The few lone pleas for help go unnoticed.
Freedom of press provides information, it gives the people a voice and it allows them to unite. But, as Sri Lanka demonstrates, by guarding the press, governments are provided freedom of actions, allowing them to violate countless human rights in their determination to stamp out a long-standing insurrection.
BBC News website
Human Rights Tribune (an online magazine)
Lankaweb (an online newspaper)
Tamil Guardian website
The Official Government News Portal of Sri Lanka